Enhancing Educational Performance:
Social, Motivational, and Cultural Factors
With Congress, the States, and localities still working through the changes caused by the 2001 “No Child Left Behind” education act, COSSA focused its second seminar of 2003 on the effect of various dynamics on student achievement. The July 17 briefing, which was co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, was entitled “Enhancing Educational Performance: Social, Motivational, and Cultural Factors.”
Impacts on Young Children
Rebecca Marcon, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Florida, focused her presentation on “Differential Factors Affecting Young Children’s Educational Performance.” She explained that most of the research she was discussing was done in Washington, D.C. to analyze why children in the city weren’t doing better in school despite a heavy investment in pre-kindergarten programs. She noted that goals at the outset of conducting the research included analyzing the preschool programs and curriculum, considering parental involvement, and identifying specific risk factors.
To answer these questions, Marcon explained that she had to consider a number of different approaches to child development, such as: How do children learn – by direct instruction or by exploring their environment? How much autonomy should be given to young children – very little, some, or a lot? Who should initiate learning – the teacher, parent, or child? After listing these methodologies, Marcon noted, “There is a lot of research support for all of the different approaches that we have in preparing young children for school and to succeed.”
To conduct the study, Marcon looked at children in a number of different Washington, D.C. schools with the same base curriculum. She explained, however, “I saw everything across the board being done; very different things in the way that the teachers interpreted the curriculum and what they were doing with young children.” From these observations, Marcon compiled three models for methods of teaching preschool: child-initiated, academically directed, and a combination approach.
In the child-initiated model, the student selects the topics and activities he or she would like to pursue. The teacher serves to guide, facilitate, and build on the child’s interest. Marcon noted that these classrooms tend to be fairly happy places – in terms of their social/emotional environment. She also remarked that these classes are not free-for-alls, but that the structure might not be immediately apparent to a new observer.
Academically directed classrooms, by contrast, feature a good deal of large group instruction. You will often find the teacher at the front of the room doing regimented question and answer activities – not a lot of leeway for individual input unless a student is responding with a correct answer. This model doesn’t allow for tailoring to different students’ needs.
To compare the academic achievement of students taught in these different classroom models, Marcon compared grades earned by the children in the third and fourth grades. She explained that the third to fourth grade transition is a key one, as the fourth grade requires students to do more independent thinking than ever before. She noted that “By third grade most of the children, regardless of their preschool model, perform similarly.” In fourth grade, however, the students who had been taught in the academically directed model had trouble keeping up with the independent activities, and accordingly, their grades dropped. These trends held when Marcon again analyzed report cards at the end of sixth grade.
To explain these tendencies, Marcon discussed the importance of socio-emotional development and the focus on it in the child-initiated classroom. Especially in boys, a focus on socio-emotional development in early learning contributes to higher grades and test scores down the road – both on an overall battery and individual subjects. And she explained that overall student performance among the students she observed was so poor “because only 20 percent of them had attended a preschool or kindergarten that focused on socio-emotional.”
Marcon also talked about parental involvement as a factor in student performance. Her research showed that students whose parents were involved in their education got higher grades at all levels. Head Start programs in Washington were doing a good job of encouraging lower-income parents to get and stay involved, whereas academically focused pre-K programs “didn’t foster parental involvement to the same extent.” She concluded by stressing that a child-initiated learning environment that incorporates socio-emotional development and encourages parental involvement is key to student performance throughout the educational path.
Getting Girls Involved
Patricia O’Reilly, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Educational Studies at the University of Cincinnati, discussed “Including Girls in the Education Mainstream.” This has been a hot topic in Washington this year, as the Bush Administration has discussed both single-sex classroom proposals and changes to the Title IX gender equality educational laws.
O’Reilly opened by explaining that the focus on accountability and testing brought about by the “No Child” legislation has reduced gender equity in classrooms as a priority of educators. She criticized the attacks on Title IX as a law that shortchanges boys’ sports by mandating equal funding levels. O’Reilly also noted that “girls are being pressured to deal with typically teenage issues before they’re teenagers, including fashion, body image, and sexual harassment.”
To begin the discussion of how to educate girls, O’Reilly posited, it’s important “to think about how to prepare girls to become future workers.” She noted that when eighth grade girls are polled, their top future career choice is teacher, followed closely by nurse, librarian, photographer, and dancer. There is very little interest in technology-related careers. She pointed to some reports that have concluded that the use and application of technology has to be more inviting for girls.
O’Reilly also pointed to a number of other fields that girls must be made more fluent in: analytical skills, community participation, financial literacy and independence, and workplace rights and benefits. To attain this goal, educating female adolescents needs to extend beyond the classroom. Along these lines, O’Reilly mentioned a number of after-school and youth development programs that have received funding from the government in recent years.
Within schools, girls should be encouraged to “take the trio of core science courses: physics, biology, and chemistry.” And there should also be a focus on getting girls into top science and math courses on the AP or honors level. O’Reilly encouraged researchers to look into the relationship between girls’ and boys’ test scores. Furthermore, culturally- and ethically-sensitive interventions and programs should be developed for girls from high-risk backgrounds and environments.
Confronting Racial Inequality
Ron Ferguson, an economist and Lecturer of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, addressed “What Doesn’t Meet the Eye: Understanding and Addressing Racial Disparities in High-Achieving Suburban Schools.” He explained that he has been working with a group called the Minority Student Achievement Network, which is a network of 15 suburban school districts convened by the superintendent in Evanston, IL about five years ago. The network is focused on closing the achievement gaps between whites and Asians on the one hand, blacks and Latinos on the other.
To analyze student achievement, Ferguson measured school experiences across the four groups. Examining the students’ backgrounds, he found that blacks and Latinos in his study were more likely to come from single-parent households, have parents with lower educational achievement, and have fewer computers and books in the home. Students across all four groups, however, had similar perspectives about achievement and their desire to do well, whether class work was interesting, and their peer dynamics.
A major problem Ferguson found is that blacks and Latinos report that they have much more difficulty understanding the teacher’s lesson and assigned readings than whites and Asians. He thus asserted that “there really are skills gaps that we need to take seriously and deal with.” He also noted that blacks, whites, and Latinos in the same level classes report spending the same amount of time doing homework, even though there is a difference in completion rates. This suggests that the blacks and Latinos aren’t getting the same payoff for the time they invest, due to skill deficiencies.
Ferguson found that blacks and Latinos were more likely than whites and Asians to report that when they work hard, encouragement from their teachers is an important reason. In addition, among blacks, Latinos, and Asians, but not whites, students reported that teacher demands are less important than encouragement. However, his conclusion is not that teachers demand less of minority students than they do of whites or that they encourage them more. The evidence that Ferguson gathered does not show racial or ethnic differences in the frequency of encouragement or demands. It does, however, indicate that encouragement seems to matter more to minority students, especially blacks and Latinos, than it does to whites. These patterns have led Ferguson to emphasize not only content and pedagogy, but also relationships in his ongoing work with schools.
COSSA will prepare edited transcripts of the seminar, which included a lively question and answer period. These should be available in October. If you would like to request a copy, please e-mail email@example.com.